A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Archive
Mystery instructions, disappearing SD cards, and hidden elevators make my job feel like espionage
I posted this story for the first time right after it happened. I wanted to bring it up again, partly because it’s a comedy of errors… partly because I have an update. The book I was researching is complete, and the object of my desire, so hard won? Well. There’s a bit of news about that, too.
I am a historian author. That means I belong to a group of secret super-heroes responsible for upturning the soil on past misdeeds and brushing the dirt from forgotten pioneers. Historians aren’t flashy. We don’t James-Bond around in Aston Martins (not on our salaries). We’re the agents you’ve never heard of, the ones you didn’t know were there. But we’re also the ones who get things done, often with a single-minded devotion that borders on obsessive behavior — and truckloads of patience.
This story starts several years ago, when I first heard about Dora. She was, you see, the first male-to-female transgender person to have a full transition surgery. Wasn’t that Lili Elbe in 1931? The name became familiar to many after the film The Danish Girl, but no, Lili was not the first. Or the second (that was Toni Ebel). So why haven’t you heard of Dora?
It’s the question I asked myself, as I sat down to write an article for Scientific American. That’s how I discovered the Institute for Sexual Science, founded by a Jewish gay man…in Berlin, Germany… in 1918. A transgender center in Interwar Germany? If its news to you, it was news to me, too. But if you have seen the black and white footage of Nazi book burnings, then you’ve witnessed the destruction of the institute’s library. Sometimes history hides in plain sight; like many tales about marginalized groups, these pioneers had been passed over and forgotten. I wanted to recover them.
The trouble, of course, has to do with the Nazi book burning itself. So much had been destroyed; how was I to recover anything at all? (Queue the scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). I found the key in a footnote to an obscure PhD thesis — which made reference to a doctor’s unpublished dissertation. Only one copy existed, in faded carbon print, at a library in…